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Some feel reporter shouldn't be jailed for protecting sources

July 18, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

With a prominent reporter sitting in jail more than a week after refusing to identify a confidential source, the question was posed to people in the Tri-State area: Should reporters be jailed for refusing to divulge their sources?

"No" was the answer from a majority of people found going about their Sunday routines.

While some said they thought it is a difficult question - especially in the case of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who is caught in an FBI investigation of possible White House wrongdoing - others thought that the verbal contract for a reporter to protect a confidential source is as strong as the one between a priest and a parishioner or a confidential police source and an investigator.

"That's what the foundation of the country was made over, right? Freedom of the press? ... You shouldn't be jailed over it," said Roy Downey Jr., 65, of Martinsburg, W.Va.

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Betty Shaffer, 57, of Hagerstown, said she felt similarly.

"I think that (reporters) need reliable sources and if they can't be protected, then why bother. ... I don't think (Miller) should be there at all, and I think they're taking away enough of Americans' rights," Shaffer said.

Christine Bauer, 34, of Martinsburg, said she thinks source confidentiality is necessary. By revealing a source, reporters "are breaking that trust."

"And if they don't have that trust, then we'll never get to the bottom of what's going on. ... There's a whole lot going on that we don't know about," Bauer said.

Donald Melchek, 54, of Falling Waters, W.Va., said generally, reporters should not be jailed for keeping sources private, especially if the source says not to, but "it depends on the situation."

Paul Clark, 49, of Shippensburg, Pa., said he wondered about the value of keeping sources secret.

"If they're telling a story and they don't tell you who the source is, how do you know it's true? I mean anybody can tell you anything at any given time," Clark said.

Clark's girlfriend, Alta Lawyer, 47, of Chambersburg, Pa., said there's a "flip side" to revealing sources, which is "sometimes people won't speak out. ... They might lose their job, ... and that's not really being fair either."

Nikki George, 31, of Keokuk, Iowa, was visiting her parents this weekend in Fayetteville, Pa. She also said it's a difficult question that "would depend on the situation."

"My biggest thing is if it came to somebody's life or death," George said. If it were that serious a situation, she said "I would (keep the source confidential). ... Otherwise, nobody will say anything."

Even in the case of a criminal who was confiding information, if that person asked for confidentiality, a reporter should honor it, said Linda Wagner, 43, of Martinsburg.

"I could understand where people think that you should tell" a name, Wagner said, but "that's your job" to protect the source.

"I'm a nurse. We keep our information private to protect the rights of our patients," said Pam Huffer, 33, of Gerrardstown, W.Va. Reporters jobs are similar, she said.

"They need to keep it for the rights of the reporters. They're doing a job and their job's important," Huffer said.

Sharon and Larry Longerbeam, of Hagerstown, agreed.

"I figure the confidentiality thing is between whoever they're talking with," and government should stay out of that relationship, Larry Longerbeam, 46, said. He said he sees it similarly to a Catholic priest's role in keeping a parishioner's confession confidential.

"If you were a person you can trust, and you give them up, then they won't trust you anymore," said Sharon Longerbeam, 53.

Amanda Chua, 18, of Chambersburg, said she didn't think reporters should have to turn over sources if "they don't want to get the person in trouble."

Chua's friend, Matt Hardsock, 19, of Chambersburg, said if a source wants to speak but doesn't want to be discovered, "it's your right as a reporter to get information."

Sue Rippeon, 44, of Hagerstown, said confidentiality "more or less, it's to protect that person," regardless of who it is. She said she sees it similar to police informants: "They don't give up who it is."

Bryan Tidd, 28, of Middletown, Md., said reporters shouldn't assume they have a right to confidentiality.

"If they're asked to ... give up their source and they don't, then they should go to jail. ... I don't see why there's a problem with that," Tidd said.

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